Animals in Folklore

There are a number of animals that have captivated our imagination over time and have been dramatized in folklore, novels, motion pictures etc. for the mystery and fear that their images conjure. One of the more ubiquitous is the wolf. Numerous ancient and modern cultures chronicle the wolf. Some cultures paint a portrait of a wolf as being strong and noble, and they are revered. Norse and Mongolian folklore generally respect wolves for their strength and cunning. The ancient Japanese built shrines to wolves since these creatures kept the deer and elk herds in balance so as not to destroy their crops. Some stories describe deities that could transform themselves into wolves at will including the Norse god Loki. The image of the werewolf was part of many cultures including the Ancient Greeks, French, Mexican and American Indians. During the Middle Ages when large packs of wolves roamed throughout Europe they often targeted humans, especially children. Many of our present day, tales about the “ big bad wolf” and werewolves came from this time period. Most wolf populations have been decimated across Europe except for the north and the alpine regions of France and Italy.

The Raven is a large, black bird that has a very general diet oftentimes feeding on carrion. In Nordic folklore the raven was often portrayed as a sign of ill omen. Swedish folklore portrayed ravens as carrying the souls of people that had been murdered. Many tribes in the Pacific Northwest and Asia on the other hand revered the raven as a god-like being. Ravens are large birds that are fairly social when young but become more solitary as they mature, living in pairs or by themselves as they age. The raven has one of the better-developed brains of any bird, and they have been known to exhibit problem-solving abilities. Ravens are found in most parts of the globe.

Vampire bats are the only bats whose dietary food source is blood. There are three species of vampire bats, all of which live in Central to South America, most common in the Amazon. Vampire bats live in large colonies and are very social. Vampire bats feed at night by biting their prey and lapping up blood that flows from the wound. These bats have a substance in their saliva called draculin that inhibits blood clotting. The vampire bat must have a blood meal every two or three days to survive. In some cases these bats will return to the cave to share their meal with a less fortunate member of the colony. Vampire bats usually feed on birds, goats, and other mammals, including humans. An engineered drug called desmoteplase has been developed from the saliva of vampire bats; this has been used to increase blood flow in stroke patients. Many ancient civilizations talk of demons that drank blood from living victims. Stories of vampire-like creatures are found in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Persian literature to name a few, and it was believed that many of these creatures were created after a living person committed suicide. Chinese folklore believed that if a black cat would jump over a dead body then that copse would return as a vampire. The modern notion of the vampire developed in the Balkan Region of southern Europe in the 18th century. This notion was later refined as a charismatic socialite in literature by John Polidori 1819 Vampyre; and, Bram Stoker ‘ s 1897 novel Dracula.

There is a small to medium sized fish found in fast moving, sandy waters in the Amazon called the black ghost knife fish. This fish carries a weak electric charge that it uses to stun its prey. Some native tribes believe that the ghosts of their departed take up residence in these fish. The black ghost knife fish is becoming a popular addition to many large aquariums.

Nature Notes for 10/31/2010